Are republicans becoming an endangered species?

2 June 2022

6:00 PM

2 June 2022

6:00 PM

How disappointing. Come Jubilee time and the Guardian can usually be relied upon to lead the way in publishing sour pieces moaning about ‘jingoism’, attacking the extravagance of a royal procession and trying to claim that the people who turn up to watch and join in with the celebrations are somehow outnumbered by people who would rather get rid of the royal family and live under a republic.

At the time of the Queen’s Golden jubilee in 2002, Mary Riddell wrote of a ‘family that knows how to command a deference out of kilter with its popularity’, adding that ‘a third of the population wants a republic, a third couldn’t care what befalls the monarchy, but damp-palmed curtseyers abound.’ Jubilee celebrations, she asserted, were ‘bogus and temporary’. For the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 Polly Toynbee upped the rhetoric further, writing that ‘the louder the bells, the more gaping the grand vacuity. What are we celebrating? A singularly undistinguished family’s hold on the nation, a mirage of nationhood, a majestic delusion.’

Surely, then, the platinum jubilee ought to be an excuse to wheel out the same sentiments again, bleating about the royal family and denigrating anyone and everyone who might be tempted to join a garden party. But apparently not. In vain have I waited for Dame Polly’s latest missive on Her Majesty, but she seems to be more preoccupied with Boris Johnson. Indeed, all we have had so far from the Guardian is a column from Rafael Behr moaning not about the Queen but what he sees as the Prime Minister’s efforts to exploit the platinum jubilee for his own ends. Indeed, Behr laid in to fellow leftists who attack royal occasions like the jubilee, writing ‘each generation of left activists has to learn the hard way that denigrating patriotic symbols is self-defeating; that it amounts to surrender in the battle to narrate history, ceding control of the story to nationalists.’ So there: leave the poor Queen alone and go after the statues of slave-traders instead.

Just where have all the republicans gone? They are hardly anywhere to be seen. True, they might have realised that it is a bit off-colour to attack a 96-year-old widow – but then was it all that much better to lay into an 86-year-old woman or a 76-year-old one? I think there is something else going on here. The left has finally worked out the whole point of a constitutional monarchy, and what a republic would really mean. The ingredient that we have this time around, but didn’t have last time, is Donald Trump. The left has understood that in a republican Britain there would be no guard against a Trumpian figure becoming our head of state. That is exactly what the Queen is there to prevent: to keep the prime minister in his place, to humiliate him by keeping him on a low table at royal banquets and to remind him that he is a servant of the British state, not its master.

There could hardly be anyone better to perform this role than Elizabeth II, who has herself fulfilled her duties with humility. The poor Queen has been obliged to entertain a number of rogues at Buckingham palace over the years, among them Nicolae Ceausescu, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping – and of course Trump himself. But one thing unites all the most unsavoury figures: each one of them was a president, not a monarch. Finally, the left can see in its full horror what a British republic could look like: with a president Boris throwing his lockdown parties at Buckingham palace rather than the pokey confines of No. 10. They might even end up with Nigel Farage.

It might be too much to expect Dame Polly to turn up at a street party, but if the left has worked out that the monarchy in its modern manifestation is a harmless institution led by people whose powerlessness serves a purpose, that is better late than never.

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